Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Colorado: Allegations of voter suppression efforts ignore the reality of recall elections

We now have the usual flip side of the "gypsy voter fraud" allegations that we heard yesterday -- an equally specious complaint of voter suppression. Part of the complaint is that the mail-in ballot law was tossed out for the recall. Nothing can be said about that -- that's the rules, and you got to play'em.

The other, more important claim, is that the turnout is exceptionally low, even for a recall. However, this may not be borne out by facts. With a few, very noteworthy exceptions, recalls usually see lower turnout.

Let's look at another high profile state legislative recall. Arizona state Senate President Russell Pearce faced a recall which took place on an election day (albeit a true off year election). Election Day recalls should have higher turnout than a regular special election like in Colorado, and since Pearce was such a lightening rod, you might expect great turnout. Instead, 23,296 people voted, down from 31,023 who voted in the 2010 general election (when it was a safe seat).

Now, turnout is very low for Morse -- so far, there are only a little over 15,000 votes (which will go up by the end), which is a bit more than half the turnout for 2010 (almost 28,000 in a slightly different district).

A couple of other examples: In 1995, three California Assembly members faced recalls. Each of these well-publicized elections drew from 25 percent to 35 percent of registered voters, well below the turnout for a general election. Similarly, the Michigan 1983 recalls saw a much smaller electorate. The 2003 Wisconsin Senate recall of Gary George saw only 8% turnout (in a primary in a low turnout district).  Even in some game-changing recalls, the turnout is low.

The best counter-examples are Gray Davis, Scott Walker and the full Wisconsin recalls. But those were much higher profile. Even the Walker one saw less turnout that was expected. Despite the spending, the Morse/Giron recalls don't approach the notoriety of a gubernatorial recall.

So what is happening? Both sides are trying to manage expectations and win the debate over how the recall is portrayed.


  1. There may not be any valid argument for voter suppression here, but surely the low turnout in this election (and in most recalls) could justify wondering about the democratic "integrity" of the result, no? Should we allow elected representatives to be recalled by just a small proportion of the citizens who voted them into office?

  2. It is a legitimate point -- a number of states require recalls to be held at the same time as a regularly scheduled primary or election (though that may be more of a cost savings issue). The difficulty is that it could delay a recall for a long time, and also allow targets to gain more time in office by using tactical litigation.

    BTW, the problem exists with all special elections (here's an op-ed I wrote on the subject).